A Green New Deal?

In her newstatesman.com blog, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas says it's time to make finance the s

After the bursting of the credit bubble in August, 2007 Alastair Darling repeatedly assured us that Britain’s ‘economic fundamentals’ are sound. The implication was that the ‘real’ economy was quite distinct from the bubble economy inhabited by bankers, short-sellers and hedge fund managers. Consumers were given the impression that a firewall existed between them and the bursting credit bubble.

It now turns out that there is no firewall; even the chancellor has to acknowledge negative feedback loops between the financial economy and the real economy. It is not possible, after all, to compartmentalise within the economy, any more than it is possible to erect firewalls between the ‘real economy’, the credit bubble, and climate change.

It is clear that the three are inextricably linked.

Easy money has financed easy shopping, and easy shopping has boosted production and energy use in countries around the world. As we re-financed mortgages, maxed out on credit cards, invested in buy-to-lets, shopped for 4x4s, handbags and sports trainers.

So we burned more finite supplies of oil and coal, and this boosted manufacturing and production in far-away places, and powered economic growth. And as we burned up these precious, scarce resources, as we stripped more forests, farmed more land, fished more fish – so the earth grew more dangerously warm and less diverse.

Somehow, something, somewhere had give. These old ideas - that we could live forever on borrowed money and on borrowed time and that there are no limits to the earth’s resources – were a series of bubbles that had to burst.

The credit bubble was the first to go - on 9th August, 2007 when banks froze lending and plunged the global economy into a crisis that is still unfolding today, and becomes more terrifying as each day passes.

The shopping bubble has proved more resilient. While there are signs that UK consumer confidence is waning, the government’s national statistics office announced in August that growth, albeit moderate growth “in retail sales volume is driven by strength in clothing and footwear stores.”

So we are still shopping for clothes and shoes. So much so that developers are confident enough to open three new massive shopping centres in London, Liverpool and Bristol.

But while we shop, an even graver threat than the financial crisis is looming: the ‘bursting’ of the greenhouse gas bubble.

The melting of Arctic sea-ice, the rise in methane emissions, rapid de-forestation and increased droughts all create positive feedback effects. Forests are no longer carbon dioxide absorbers, but instead produce carbon dioxide. Thick permafrost no longer bottles up methane; instead it melts, spewing out methane and magnifying climate change.

And still the Labour government baulks at the scale and urgency of the threat to our security. And at the scale of adjustment, adaptation and investment needed to address the threat. Britain’s economy must undergo a major structural adjustment, to adapt to the threat posed to our security by climate change.

But, while the financial adjustment is already happening - albeit chaotically - the economic adjustment has yet to be addressed.

Just two weeks ago Labour ministers seemed to promise an expansion of airports, motorways and coal-fired power stations. We were offered no leadership, no vision of the much more ambitious drive for energy efficiency that is needed, or of the large-scale alternative energy investment that is vital to our security.

What is the way forward? Along with eight other green economics experts, I have co-authored a report that shows us the new direction we need.

We need a Green New Deal, based on increased regulation of the finance sector, so that finance once again becomes servant to the economy. As in the New Deal era of the 1930s, we need low interest rates and minimal tax evasion if we are to finance the massive investment needed for a multi-billion pound crash programme to make every building in the country a power station, while maximising the UK’s use of small and large-scale renewables. We need to mobilise a carbon army of green-collar workers to implement this programme. Finally we need to localise the production of food, and build a more sustainable local economy in food and other resources.

It is only such a programme that could give the people of Britain hope; that could help Britain survive this crisis, and enable our citizens to live better, more happily, and within the limits of our ecological budgets.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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